Not so long ago, we called them tangerines, they came from Florida and when we thought of them at all -- which wasn’t very often -- it was mainly because they were so easy to peel. Certainly it wasn’t for their flavor, which was pretty uniformly undistinguished.
Not anymore. Walk through a Southern California farmers market this winter and it almost seems there are more locally grown tangerines -- properly called mandarins -- than there are navel oranges.
Sold under their variety names, Satsumas, Clementines, Pixies and at least half a dozen others, they come in a kaleidoscope of shapes, sizes and colors. And the flavor is mouth-filling, explosively sweet and tart at the same time, with individual varieties ringing notes that range from flowery to almost winy.
This is just the beginning. California is in the midst of a gold rush, as a crop that only a few years ago represented less than 5% of the state’s citrus harvest becomes one of the big four -- trailing only navel and Valencia oranges and lemons.
Although they’re a relatively new addition to the California scene, mandarins (Citrus reticulata) are hardly newcomers to the world of citrus. In fact, they are among the three original families, along with pummelos and citrons. Every other kind of citrus fruit -- oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit and all the rest -- are hybrids resulting from cross-breeding among these three groups.
The popular name tangerine is a commercial invention that was attached in the mid-19th century because the first mandarins imported into the U.S. were shipped from the Moroccan seaport of Tangiers. So unfamiliar were these fruits that they were sometimes sold under the name “mandarin orange,” a usage that today continues mainly in the canned version.
To make it even more confusing, some of the fruits we consider mandarins are actually hybrids -- crosses between mandarins and other citrus, sometimes quite complex. There is, in fact, a mandarin-orange cross called the tangor.
Generally speaking, mandarins are easy to peel, and easy to separate into segments. Beyond these characteristics, the family is highly varied. Botanists divide mandarins into as many as 35 types, according to things such as point of origin, leaf shape and color.
For cooks, it’s simpler just to split the family according to when the varieties ripen. Early mandarins, primarily Satsumas, come into the market around Thanksgiving and last through mid-February. Middle-season mandarins -- Clementines and others -- begin with the new year and last through early March. Late mandarins -- Gold Nugget, Pixies and others -- are harvested from mid-February into the summer months.
The state’s tangerine acreage has more than doubled in the last five years; as more and more trees mature in the next couple of winters, brace yourself for a flood of fruit.
According to the most recent California Citrus Acreage Report, of the roughly 18,000 acres of mandarins in the state, more than half have been planted since 1999, most of them in the San Joaquin Valley. Two large growers, Sun Pacific and Paramount Citrus, have each planted roughly 3,000 acres of Clementines in the Central Valley.
This success has left Southern California’s tangerine pioneers, a loose association of small growers in Ojai, seeming somewhat proud, slightly dazed and more than a little worried. They’re happy this fruit they’ve loved so well is finally getting the attention it is due, but they worry whether large-scale production can still result in good quality fruit.
And more to the point for them, how can a tiny band of small producers in Ojai compete with corporate giants?
“They’re big and they can be much more efficient than we can be,” says Tony Thacher of Friend’s Ranches, which has been farming citrus in the Ojai Valley since the 1880s. “They’re also going to be earlier to market, no matter what. So we just have to try to do something special.”
That something special is stealing a trick from the wine industry and promoting an appellation-grown fruit, the Ojai Pixie Tangerine, which will be hitting the markets in about a month. Pixies are small and seedless and when grown in the right places, incredibly sweet.
Originally a dooryard fruit eaten mainly at home, Pixies were first sold only through farmers markets and at a few restaurants such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley. But these little mandarins are so irresistible that they are now sold across the country. Where there were once only a scattering of trees, there are more than 26,000 in the Ojai Valley.
Why are mandarins so hot all of a sudden? Credit the Clementine. In the 1990s, growers from Spain, the largest exporters of fresh citrus in the world, started flooding the American market with them. From 1996 to 2000, Spain’s shipments of Clementines to the United States increased five-fold, to more than 200 million pounds per year.
That got the attention of California’s citrus growers, many of whom were getting squeezed economically in the souring orange market.
“I think there were two things growers were looking at,” says Thacher. “First, that’s a lot of tangerines. If we can take some of that, we should be able to grow them cheaper and have an advantage.
“The other thing is that in Europe, mandarin consumption is much higher than it is here. In the U.S., it’s always been 2% to 3% of the market. In Europe, it’s about one-third, about the same as oranges and lemons. So that says there might be room to grow in this country.”
Thacher grows a dozen varieties of mandarins at Friend’s Ranches, the three orchards in Ojai named for his wife’s family. His father-in-law, Elmer Friend, was one of the first farmers in the area to grow mandarins, planting Dancys in the 1960s, mainly to sell to Chinese markets in San Francisco.
Friend planted more mandarins in the 1980s, as the California Valencia orange harvest moved from Southern California to cheaper ground in the Central Valley.
Today, Friend’s Ranches farms about 75 acres of mandarins, divided among a dozen varieties, including familiar favorites such as Dancy, Satsuma and Clementine, lesser-known gems such as Lee and Page, and cutting-edge releases such as Tahoe Gold, Shasta Gold and Yosemite Gold newly released by breeders at UC Riverside.
And of course, Pixie.
Naturally sweet wherever they’re grown in the Ojai Valley, farmers say, the Pixie takes on another dimension because of the combination of warm, but not hot, days and chilly nights. Just as important, from a commercial point of view, Pixies ripen late in the season, when the Central Valley growers are winding up.
Harvest doesn’t usually begin until March and the fruit can hang on the trees for months without ill effects. Thacher says he has harvested Pixies as late as October.
The driving forces behind the organization to promote the Ojai Pixie are Thacher and his friend Jim Churchill of Churchill-Brenneis Orchard. Churchill got into the mandarin business in the 1980s when he was planting an orchard on land owned by his father, a producer of educational films.
“I was at Tony’s packing shed and I picked up a tangerine out of a bin and peeled it and ate it the way you do at a packing shed, and it stopped me dead,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Tony, what is this?’ ” He said it was a Pixie tangerine. He said he only had two trees of them and that by the time they were done selling the Dancys, the kids had always eaten most of the Pixies.
“I swear, if there was a picture of that moment, you could see the light bulbs going off in my head.”
Churchill immediately planted 80 trees. Of course, selling the fruit was another matter. Every weekend he’d load the back of his Volvo station wagon with 22 cartons, and peddle them around Southern California.
The Pixie’s big break came thanks to Jim Maser, a friend of Churchill’s wife and partner, Lisa Brenneis. Maser, co-owner of Berkeley’s Cafe Fanny and other restaurants, recommended that Churchill try Bill Fujimoto at the legendary Monterey Market, also in Berkeley.
“So I packed up a carton and worked out how to get it to him up there by Greyhound Package Express,” Churchill recalled. “Bill called me right away and said, ‘Hey, these are really good. I’ll take a pallet at 80 cents a pound.’
“I couldn’t believe it. That one call represented something like 600% of my prior sales.”
Today Churchill farms about 12 acres of mandarins in Ojai, roughly two-thirds Pixies, the rest a mix of Kishus, Satsumas and Pages as well as a smattering of other varieties.
All told, he says, the association of 28 Ojai Pixie farmers sold about 900,000 pounds of fruit last year. About 10% of the fruit is sold through farm stands and farmers markets, with the rest going to gourmet groceries, mostly in the Bay Area, and to wholesale companies like Melissa’s, which has developed a special marketing campaign around them.
A fledgling group in the Sierra foothills is trying to do much the same thing with Satsumas, marketing their late-fall fruit as “mountain mandarins.”
Churchill and Thacher insist that there is more to an Ojai Pixie than a cute name. The combination of fruit and place, they say, really is special.
“Citrus is much more site specific than other fruit, and tangerines are the most site specific of all the citrus,” says Thacher. He says even within the limited confines of the Ojai Valley, there can be as much as six weeks’ difference in the ripening of the same variety, from one orchard to another.
“I get people e-mailing me -- they tried my Pixies and want to grow some of their own,” he says. “I tell them you really have to have the right microclimate. I’ve never had a decent Pixie from the Central Valley.”
Churchill doesn’t know why the Ojai Valley fruit turns out the way it does. “I think it’s the climate: We get hot, sunny days and cool nights. Winters, we get enough cold, but not too much. But that’s just a guess, nobody really knows.
“I guess you could say it’s a sense of terroir.”
Clementine. A large family of mandarins that came to the United States from the Mediterranean. The original “tangerines,” they have dark, reddish-orange peel with a rich flavor. Seedless when grown in isolation, but the flavor sometimes isn’t as rich. Algerians are an early variety of clementines. Midseason.
Dancy. One of the oldest commercial varieties (dating to the 1860s) and the traditional California mandarin; this is the taste most people associate with tangerines. They can be quite seedy. Midseason.
Fairchild. One of the earliest-ripening mandarins, particularly when it is grown in the desert. Rich, sweet flavor, though difficult to peel and seedy. Early season.
Gold Nugget. Very similar to Pixies, Gold Nuggets are small fruit that are easy to peel and very sweet. Seedless. Late season.
Kishu. With tiny, gem-like fruit no bigger than a walnut, the Kishu is like a little piece of tangerine candy. Easy to peel and seedless. Midseason.
Lee. An incredibly sweet mandarin with a complex flavor and a high note almost like orange flower water. A bit difficult to peel, with seeds. Midseason.
W. Murcott Afourer. One of the prettiest mandarins, the Murcott has a peel that looks almost polished. The biggest grower in California sells them under the trademarked name Delite. Not to be confused with Murcott, which is the Honey tangerine of Florida. Seedless in isolation. Mid to late season.
Page. Along with the Lee, perhaps the best tasting of the mandarins. It is very sweet and has an extremely intense flavor that is almost winy. Seedless in isolation. Midseason.
Pixie. Small and sweet, with good flavor and little acidity. Seedless. Late season.
Satsuma. Satsumas can be dark or light orange in color, depending on the specific variety. The flavor can be mild, but tradition has it that trees at least 10 years old bear the best fruit. Seedless. Early season.